Thank goodness today’s leaders weren’t around when Maine embraced the idea that we would all have access to telephones, electricity, roads, and more. If they were, there would be no rural Maine.
The concept we embraced was that all customers would pay the same rates and have the same access to everything needed in a community. While it would have been cheaper to limit electricity, telephones, and state roads to urban and suburban areas, we pushed those services statewide, into every nook and cranny of our state, and shared the costs equally.
Recent action by the U.S. Postal Service and the Public Utilities Commission tells me they don’t have any sense of the past, or of our collective need to have and pay the same fees for these services.
Linda and I love Swan’s Island, just a short ferry ride from Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island. We’ve written two travel columns about this special place and were there last summer for the awesome Lobster Festival in Frenchboro on nearby Long Island.
That’s when we heard that the U.S. Postal Service had recently told LJ Hopkins that he could no longer deliver mail and food together to Swan’s Island. Hopkins had been doing that for 27 years, loading up his van with food, household supplies, and the mail and taking the ferry over to Swan’s, where he delivered these items to residents. Some of the mail was transferred to a private boat for delivery (with food and supplies) to Frenchboro.
After 27 years without a problem, the Postal Service decided this arrangement jeopardized the security of the mail and forbid Hopkins from continuing, even though he told them he couldn’t afford to deliver the mail unless he could also carry other items in his van. The Postal Service then awarded the contract to deliver mail to someone else.
And that’s when — thank goodness — Maine’s Congressional delegation stepped up to help these island residents. My friend Chris Rector of Sen. Angus King’s staff worked especially hard on this one. A summer resident who is an attorney also jumped in to provide legal assistance, reporting that Hopkins and Brian Krafjack, who owns the store on Swan’s Island and was delivering the mail to Frenchboro, were bullied by the Postal Service.
Eventually the Postal Service caved, requiring only that Hopkins keep the mail in a “separate, secure container.” Yup, don’t mingle that mail with the food. Soon after, Hopkins was back at it with a van full of food, supplies, and mail, while Krafjack was also back delivering all those things to Frenchboro.
Soon after they solved the postal problem, Maine’s Public Utilities Commission clobbered the 390 people who live year-round on these two islands. These good folks had been paying some of the highest electric bills in the nation.
Their electricity arrives through an undersea cable, with distribution provided by Swan’s Island Electric Cooperative. Islanders decided to transfer their cooperative to Emera Maine, which would cut their costs of electricity in half.
Astonishingly, the PUC voted 2-1 to deny the transfer, saying that Emera’s other customers should not have to pay the costs to deliver cheaper electricity to the islands. We should all be concerned, because this unprecedented decision could result in higher costs in all of inland rural Maine.
I could not believe the comments, reported by Fred Bever on Maine Public Radio, from PUC member Bruce Williamson.
“Well, people choose to live on Swan’s Island,” said Williamson. “They managed to live with high oil and high fuel prices in the past. Everything costs more than it does on the mainland, and it always has. In my view, the entire uniform rates rate-averaging concept having precedential value in Maine is a fabrication and a principle of mere convenience.”
Yikes! This guy needs a history lesson (especially considering he moved here from the Tennessee). Collectively we decided, almost 100 years ago, to provide electricity and other services to all homes, at the same price, whether they be in the city of Portland or down a long unpaved road through the woods. This is not a fabrication!
And that principle drove lots of other services too, from the interstate highway system to telephone service. Williamson’s comments and vote are entirely unacceptable, unfair, and contrary to our state’s policies and history.
How could he not know that in nearby Bar Harbor, where the opposition of townspeople forced the relocation of a large electrical substation, all Emera customers paid the hundreds of thousands of extra dollars for that relocation?
Even the Maine State Ferry Service’s year-round transportation to offshore islands gets a subsidy from taxpayers, because user fees could never pay the actual costs. And several state agencies have been working hard to encourage and support our island year-round communities.
We’re down to just a handful of islands with year-round populations today. We all need to stand up for them, and for all rural Mainers, and demand a different decision from the PUC, or new PUC commissioners who understand our history and appreciate our rural Maine communities.